Thursday, January 27, 2005

US companies may back Latvia licence bid

Latvian entrepreneur Peteris Smidre may bring in two US companies – an investment fund and a mobile operator – as partners in a bid by his private firm Alina for Latvia's third UMTS/GSM licence. Smidre mentioned this in a casual conversation after talking to reporters about the operations of Baltcom, the cable TV, internet and fixed network telephony company where he is chairman of the board.
Smidre didn't say who his American partners were, noting that negotiations were incomplete ahead of the February 25 deadline for applying for pre-selection in the auction. The investment fund would provide much of the financing for the project, where the Latvian government has insisted that the successful bidder invest at least EUR 150 million in a new network and submit a detailed investment business plan as part of the pre-selection. The unnamed American operator would, most likely, assist with equipment purchasing and provide an easier entre into roaming contracts (perhaps tacking the new Latvian entity onto existing arrangements).
There now appear to be at least three more or less serious bidders for the licence at a starting price of LVL 1.3 million – in addition to Alina's consortium, the little-known International Telecommuncations and Technologies (IT&T) and Denmark's TDC (though its Lithuanian subsidiary Bite GSM). India's TCIL was to send a delegation to Latvia between January 9 - 15, but this visit was suddenly cancelled without explanation.
TDC may well have the highest stakes in getting the licence in order to cover all three Baltic countries.
Smidre also said to this blogger that Baltcom Fiber, the company formed when he bought the partly-stranded (but physically completed) optical cable stretching from Sweden's Gotland island to Ventspils, Latvia, was now supplying international capacity for Baltcom Telefonsakari, the tandem of subsidiaries serving some 9000 corporate and 1500 household customers. The telecoms entrepreneur, who started Baltcom GSM (now Tele2) in the late 1990s together with Metromedia and Western Wireless of the US, said Baltcom Fiber was cautious about entering the corporate data transmission market. This could lead to a destructive price war, Smidre said, noting that there was excessive capacity under and around the Baltic (with cables owned by Telia International Carrier and Lattelekom/Tele2, as well as links through Estonia, Finland, and Lithuania) but relatively few large corporate customers.
Meanwhile, we also learned that Baltcom's "triple play" packages combining internet, digital cable TV and telephony have only been sold to around 350 customers. This figure is expected to rise during the year as the telephone offering becomes more competitive due to sharp cuts in Lattelekom's interconnect fees ordered by Latvia's Public Utilities Regulatory Commission.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Latvian PM to Microsoft: Come hither...

Latvia's Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis will be asking Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates to consider setting up a development operation in Latvia, sources told this blogger.
Kalvitis will meet Gates on February 2 at an inivitation only Microsoft Executive Summit in Prague.
According to Edvins Karnitis, a Latvian IT specialist who often advises the government, the proposal will be for developing a specific set of technologies in which the Latvian IT sector has considerable experience.
Karnitis told this blogger (who was doing his day newspaper job) what the specific field was, but later asked that it be kept confidential until later in the week. I went along, though I hardly think the Lithuanians, Estonians or Czechs read Dienas bizness ( with any regularity. In any case, such information is more likely to leak through an English language platform now that I seem to have hundreds more readers/undocumented searchbots that before. So, later...
Another area where Latvia may try to entice Gates to invest, or rather, put some of his charitable donations, could be in vaccines. The Latvian pharmaceuticals and biologicals industries could make some generic vaccines (don't remember the exact list of pestilences that Gates the philanthropher is fighting) with funding by Gates' charities.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Why all the attention? :)

I have one of these Adsense counters monitoring this blog, and last week, like a seismograph recording a 9.0 Richter (compared to my baseline of clicks), people seem to have gone apeshit for little 'ol Telecoms in Latvia.
There could be a couple of reasons for this. One is that there are new searchbots out their and their visits haven't been filtered out yet.
The other is that there was something really interesting. Don't know what it could have been? The Man in the Middle thing? Nobody's confirmed it yet, plus, internationally, this is nothing new. It's just phishing where, thanks to the miracles of technology, you can watch the bait being taken and swallowed in real time and ram it down your victim's throat. At least I think that's how it works.
Another theory is that Coolynx, the author of the demolished Latvian geek and cyberhead website, linked to the Man in the Middle article and all of his followers paid a visit. now is at the Berlin 1947 stage. The rubble has been removed and a skeleton of buildings is reappearing. I still can't forgive myself for not noticing how he got wiped out in November, for fuck's sake. But I guess I had no interest in reading stuff about how to install the RatBat Version 0.875 (nor did I have any idea what you do with the RatBat 0.875 once it runs), which was sort of the daily bread of the website, although it often had some inside stuff about what was going on in the Latvian IT scene, like the infamous pilfering of a school pupil database some year or two ago.
Also, I write this on a Powerbook G4 with Mac OS 10.37 or something, and most of the discussions are for the Linux/Wintel world. In fact, one of the more bizarre reasons cited for breaking the pot (pods is pot in Latvian) was that Coolynx was considered too much of a Linux wise-ass. Tell that to the childrens' site or the town of Mālpils, whose websites went down when the server with on it was whacked. Interestingly, they never got inside of pods, so, like with a guy who has put steel doors and alarms on his apartment, they took down the whole building with the cyber version of a laser-guided 1000 kg bomb.
Whatever the reason, please do keep visiting and do visit the new pods rising from the ashes, if you read Latvian.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Police know nothing of alleged bank scam

The Economic Police in Latvia have not received any formal complaint nor have they arrested anyone in connection with an alleged "man in the middle" scam involving a Latvian bank and a Latvian ISP reported on this blog. That doesn't mean that sort of stuff isn't happening.
Just to be clear-- in this scheme, it is the ISP and infrastructure along the way to the bank's website that is compromised.
I will continue to look into this with my confidential sources. As one source said: the issue needs to be publicized.
Some people are connecting this to a bizarre incident where an e-mail warning of phishing under the guise of Latvia's Hansabanka (part of a Swedish-owned banking group) was circulated, but then Hansabanka denied that any such threat had been spotted. Might have given some people ideas, however.
Man-in-the-middle (well, to be fair, hackergrrls can do this too :) ) is, of course, more sophisticated than phishing and requires some work, although the tools are out there, scattered on the internet.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"Man in the Middle" reported busted in Latvia

My sources tell me that someone pulled a "man in the middle" hack on a Latvian bank and an internet service provider, but got burned for it. Awaiting confirmation from the Economic Police that they have someone under arrest.
The «man in the middle» works as follows:
The hacker uses a nasty tool (CAIN or something like that) to corrupt the address resources of an internet service provider. He puts up a clone of a popular internet banking homepage.
The innocent internet bank customer starts to log on to his bank and thinks all is well, since he gets a secure SSL link, not to his bank, but the clone.
As soon as he starts to log on the clone, where the malevolent hacker sees the customer's information «in the clear», the hacker uses it to log onto the real internet banking page. When, as at some Latvian internet banks, the real bank site asks for a code on a preprinted card at random (please enter code 6). The hacker passes it on to the unwitting customer, who provides the code, allowing the hacker to log on to the real bank account and start stealing.
The hacker had apparently been a pest to the ISP for a long time, and now, with a serious crime committed or at least attempted, both the ISP and the bank are glad to have him/her put away.
Apparently, this rather sophisticated type of cybercrime has occurred elsewhere around the world, including Estonia. No bank is likely to confirm that it has been victimized. Nor is an ISP likely to put out a proud press release on how it was hacked.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

A belated report of near-death

You sometime read about people who want to look up a seldom visited distant relative or aquaintence only to find that the person in question has been dead for XX (fill in the blank) weeks, months or years. I think the record may be held in efficient welfare Sweden, where social workers found (in the 90s), a skeleton sitting at a 10-year old breakfast with a 1986 newspaper. Nobody noticed the poor geezer was gone, money went to his account automatically and the rent was paid (including electricity).
Well, the same has just happened with a lively and informative (for those who knew what was being talked about) Latvian language IT blog or quasi-blog, Seems that some envious folks disliked the editor (nick: coolynx). Apparently some teeny-hackers, trying to get at coolynx, whacked the whole server, taking out a number of hosted sites and more or less wrecking to this very day.
As someone who did look at pods (in Latvian, and very technical, sometimes) just to feel the buzz of what was going on among the sysops and people in the business, I am ashamed to say that its near-destruction passed me by, as well as a couple of other people at my day job paper who used to monitor it. We never noticed! All this seems to have happened in November. Forgive us, who slept!
BTW: pods is back, a pale shadow of itself, as the whole site and its files were apparently totally erased. Don't know if it will ever come back to life. It had extensive files, archives on various esoterica (for us laypersons) on linux, tools, software tricks, etc, and long and passionate discussions of these in Latvian.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Various happenings

One should not blog for the sake of blogging, and nothing much has happened for the past week, until a few days ago.
Latvia was hit by a very powerful storm, a hurricane by American standards, or perhaps a Baltic typhoon on January 9- 10. It knocked out much of both mobile phone networks, which is no surprise, since what was actually knocked out was the electricity grid. The base stations on reserve power then faithfully worked on until the batteries ran out. Few actual base stations were blown down in the wind – these and the towers they are mounted on are pretty robust. There is one rumor that Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT) lost a station when the roof it was standing on blew away. Now if this was a roofing industry blog, I could have a lot to say about all the new shiny tin or ceramic shingle roofs that were "relocated" by the storms to places like neighboring fields, nearby trees, on top of someone's car, etc.
Both LMT and Tele2 had restored service in Latvia's approximately 26 regional center cities and towns using portable generators. As the electricity (most of it cut by millions of fallen trees) is restored, so too do the mobiles come back to life. Lattelekom's fixed network lost service to less than 5 % of its customers at the height of the storm, reserve power was available to most of its switches affected by the failure of Latvenergo's power.
There is now all kinds of talk about how municipalities should buy backup generators (they cost upwards of USD 20 000 apiece) for the next "worst storm in 40 years". So 40 years from now, they can dust off the museum piece and wonder what it was for, since the whole town may be running on a smart network of household fuel cells connected by buried cables.
The Latvian authorities should. however, consider buying a number of satellite phones, perhaps a few to each regional center, should there be another failure of the mobile networks for whatever reason. Even if the fixed network stays up and running, the portable satellite phones are useful for moving around and reporting on the situation on the ground in case of an emergency. Satellite communications worked from places wiped off the face of the earth by the tsunami, they should suffice if the world gets cut off from Moss Village (Sūnuciems to my Latvian readers) by a falling pine tree.

The Indians don't show up
Two representatives of third mobile licence contender Telecommunications Consultants India Limited (TCIL) who were scheduled to visit Latvia January 9 -15 cancelled at the last minute. Unforeseeable and unavoidable circumstances were cited. No new dates have been set. The deadline for pre-application for the auction of the third UMTS/GSM licence, with a starting price of LVL 1.3 million is February 25.
No one is attaching any special significance to the cancellation, this blogger was unable to get in touch with the person at TCIL said to be in charge of the Latvia project. Probably, the reasons must be taken at face value – something in in India or perhaps a flight cancellation in anticipation of the hurricane.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Looking forward to 2005

Well, the New Year has started and a few things may be happening in Latvian Telecoms. Later today (January 3), Lattelekom will issue a statement on its response to the Public Utilities Regulatory Board setting an interconnect tariff ceiling of LVL 0.008 (thats 0.8 santims) per minute for the incumbent. For the moment, Lattelekom is prepared to comply, although, contrary to gleeful comment from the Latvian Telecommunications Association, it will be a couple of months before any alternative operators feel the lower tariffs in their expense outlays. The fact is that interconnect accounts (in Latvia, probably elsewhere, too) are kept in traffic minutes. These are then tallied by both interconnect partners, and then a bill is sent for the agreed figure. This means that January traffic will be tallied and billed in March. Also, there is probably a set off (Operator X used 125 000 minutes of Lattelekom network time, Lattelekom used, say 25 000 minutes of X's network time).
Representatives of Telecommunications Consulting of India Ltd (TCIL), a contender for the "third" GSM and UMTS licence auction were supposed to be coming to Latvia in January. One wonders whether the tsunami disaster could have affected these plans, although TCIL is headquartered in Delhi, far from the seacoast. We may also see Denmark's TDC (through Bite GSM) clarify its position on the auction.
As I see it, TCIL is at least a known and experienced contender trying to break into a new market, while TDC needs a Latvian licence to complete its presence in all three Baltic states and be able to compete with TeliaSonera's subsidiaries in the mobile market. My guess is that these two could be serious bidders.
Meanwhile, I have received some feelers from still-mysterious International Telecommunications and Technologies (IT&T) to perhaps meet with their executives and be informed of who really stands behind this consortium (which shows up on no one's radar). It depends on whether my day job newspaper will agree to me going to either London or Beirut at IT&T's expense. A bit dodgy, but interesting. No one else is likely to get the story. I keep hearing that HuaWei, the Chinese telecoms infrastructure builder, is one of the technology partners behind IT&T, although there is no confirmation of this. HuaWei is also trying to break into the European market, they just did some kind of deal in the Netherlands.
It will be interesting to look at Triatel's figures for mobile CDMA-450 use in a couple of months. This will be a test of 3G services (fast data, mostly) takeup. If Triatel gets off the ground, it may inspire Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT) and Tele2 to move beyond their own buildings in building out their UMTS networks. Triatel looked pretty optimistic when it upped the number of phone numbers it wanted from 40 000 to 60 000. A number of these, however, could be fixed mobiles(desktop phones) or wireless DSL-speed internet access.
DSL lines in Latvia grew by 68 % (regulator's figures) despite there being no national broadband policy coming out of the Communications Department of the Ministry of Transport. No one really knows how much broadband is used in Latvia because many 2 Mb or higher connections are resold or redistributed in apartment buildings and by smaller, semi-fly-by-night ISPs. I am pretty sure that official figures (mainly Lattelekom's DSL services) will zip past 100 000 in the first half of 2005. It would be nice if they speeded up the basic service for existing customers from the present 256 kbps (say, to 512 kbps or 1 Mb, the DSLAMs serving HomeDSL reputedly are set to 2 Mbps and then slowed by software to 256 kbps). In Sweden (home to TeliaSonera), multimegabit speeds are standard - one of my sons has 8 megs (in a Stockholm suburb), the other 10 megs (in Umeå). There is some service pushing 26 megs on posters in the Stockholm subway (there was, at least, when I was there in November).
Look, too, for some kind of merged marketing by Lattelekom and LMT, as well as the launch of a few new consumer/business products by Lattelekom, such as video on demand or digital cable TV (probably toward the second half of 2005). Both need higher basic speeds.